By Lynne Milgram, 1990
Cloth has traditionally served as a vehicle of cultural narrative. The historical textiles that form the core of the Textile Museum’s exhibits and collection display myriad systems of visual devices - images, signs and symbols - that allow the viewer to enter into the stories and discover the relationships among a people, their art, and their culture.
Pictorial space: New textile images brings together three artists whose work investigates the creators’ personal narratives. The art of Marna Goldstein Brauner, Nancy Edell and Marcel Marois manifests a direct extension of their experiences and circumstances, and records their responses to the culture in which they function.
This exhibition continues the Contemporary Gallery’s mandate to represent the work of artists whose contributions warrant serious consideration and documentation. Indeed, the work of Brauner, Edell and Marois not only offers a wealth of information about the state of contemporary art in textile media, but also allows the assessment of specific current concerns amid the present pluralism in the field. Exhibitions such as this one are an important means of maintaining national visibility for the artists working in the medium, and for providing the public and professional community of artists, scholars, critics and students with a forum for the exchange of ideas.
I wish to thank Marna Goldstein Brauner, Nancy Edell and Macel Marois for supporting the museum through their participation in this exhibition. My warmest appreciation is extended to Susan Warner Keene for her vision and tireless effort in organizing Pictorial space: New textile images.
By Susan Warner Keene, 1990
Little more than 30 years have elapsed since the beginning of the modern period of art textiles in the Western world, yet already it is possible to identify profound changes in attitude and practice among artists who work with fibre materials and cloth. What began in the late 1950s in Europe and North America, with the rejection of traditional tapestry’s narrative role, has evolved into many diverse inquiries that include, once again, the possibility of the pictorial.
Thirty years ago, artists considered the rejection of pictorial imagery essential to the liberation of textile art from the dead hand of the European tapestry tradition, which had lost any claim to originality. For over 400 years, weavers in the large European tapestry workshops had been translating painters’ designs into cloth, brushstroke by brushstroke. The connection between concept and construction was utterly erased. Efforts to revitalize the tradition in France by artist Jean Lurçat in the 1940s and 1950s had achieved only limited success.
However, in the post-war context of abstract expressionism and minimalism, an intense investigation of fibre materials and processes took place, with the emphasis on the authentic language of textiles. In her 1976 thesis “La renovation de la tapisserie de 1960 á 1975 á travers les Biennales de Lausanne” (The Renewal of Tapestry from 1960 to 1975 through the Lausanne Biennials), Marie Frechette describes: “The weaver-creators were aiming no longer at reproducing a pictorial image in wool, but instead at producing an autonomous object telling of the specific qualities of the materials and techniques that went into its making. The signifier was once again playing an active role”.1
The 14 biennials in Lausanne, Switzerland, were major, international juried shows that provided exposure for this new work. The production of the period has also been documented in such American survey shows as The Art Fabric: Mainstream, selected by Mildred Constantine and Jack Lenor Larsen in 19852, and Fiber R/Evolution. organized by the Milwaukee Art Museum in 19863. With a few exceptions, the overwhelming majority of the works from this period reflected the attitude Frechette describes; the scale was huge, while form and material boldly declared origins and means of manipulation.
In a recent catalogue essay, American artist Tom Lundberg described one of the effects of this involvement with process during the 1970s: “As fibre arts emphasized their kinship with the goals of painting and sculpture, utilitarian and decorative concerns were often viewed as obstacles to expression. Picture-making and storytelling often seemed subordinate to form and cross-media exploration”.4
Less than 10 years later, however, Nancy Corwin, writing in American Craft, assessed the concerns of textile artists in her discussion of the Kansas City Art Institute’s group exhibition Vivid Forms: New Inventions: “They are seeking to express their personal and spiritual concerns, to speak more fully and clearly about their lives. In this quest they have turned away from the self-referential formalism of the 1970s to symbol, allusion and metaphor”.5 Joan Livingstone, one of the artists in the show, explained her reason for this shift as “a need to bring form back to the human condition.”
Indeed, the 1980s witnessed wide exploration by textile artists to invest their work with content beyond the purely formal. The result has been works so diverse, it is practically impossible to speak generally about them. This is not a bad thing; it requires us to look at the works themselves, not as examples of a genre but as individual expressions, which is, after all, the manner in which they are created. We can, however, consider more closely some of the means artists are using to enlarge the voice of textile art beyond material and structure.
Although each of the three artists included in Pictorial space: New textile images uses a different type of cloth structure to give ideas a visual form, all of the artists place pictorial imagery at the centre of their image-making strategies. Marna Goldstein Brauner takes photographs as she travels, then silkscreens them onto dyed, linen cloth. Nancy Edell interprets dream-like vignettes using the traditional method of rug hooking. Marcel Marois weaves classic Gobelin tapestry (characteristic of tapestry produced at the Gobelins works in Paris, France), but finds his subject matter in contemporary news photos. Far from recapitulating the mindless translation of picture to fabric, which was the downfall of European tapestry, these artists include the nature of the form in the meaning - or rather, the meanings - of their works. Conscious of the cultural implications of their chosen textile forms, they embrace the physical facts of their techniques as fundamental to the totality of the image.
The exacting weaving style used by Marcel Marois is, with the exception of a few modifications, little changed from the method employed for centuries by the weavers in the famous Gobelins tapestry workshop in Paris. Working on an upright loom, using multiple strands of fine woolen yarns, Marois builds up his images in minute colour areas, working for months on a single piece. The significant difference is that he is weaving his own compositions: collages of photographic images culled from newspapers and magazines, which he has manipulated, reorganized and reshaped until they have attained a structure that tells his story.
Since 1981, when Marois exhibited for the first time at the International Biennial of Tapestry in Lausanne, he has become known for his taut images of threatened species and ways of life, including fleeing herds of caribou, stranded whales and teams of sled dogs. He has refused, however, to sentimentalize his themes through either colour or composition. Phoques en Phase d’Alteration (Seals of Metamorphosis) is typical of Marois’s restricted colour palette of the time, with black delineating the form of the seal on a white ground, once in photorealistic detail and then again in a degenerated form, almost as if the animal were dissolving before our eyes. Additional colour is restricted to the area peripheral to the main subject so that it augments the image without “intervening directly,” as he puts it. These works, some of them very large in scale, incorporate abstract elements as well as photographic images in carefully structured compositions that distance the loaded imagery of his subjects.
Much of the history of European tapestry has been bound up with the celebration of religious and secular heroes. Common narrative themes in the medieval and Gothic periods were important moments in the lives of the saints, including scenes of major battles or more jocular conquests, such as the hunting of wild animals. While Marois has adopted a similar scale and narrative approach in his work, the differences are much more significant. There are no heroes to celebrate here, and while the animal forms possess a kind of realism, it is the realism of the news media - evidence of moments already past, already translated to another use. Far from attempting to glorify, these images possess a haunting, elegiac quality. To anyone aware of the history of tapestry it is obvious that in the seven large tapestries he created from 1978 to 1985, Marois has created a late 20th-century equivalent to the Unicorn cycle of tapestries made in the late 15th century and now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Here, the gentle unicorn, symbolic of goodness and purity, is shown being relentlessly pursued by hunters and hounds.
Since 1986 Marois has taken a somewhat different approach to structuring his images by introducing a much richer colour palette, thus reducing the illusion of three-dimensionality of the animal figures so their shapes become more integrated into the cloth of the tapestry. In Leurs esprits s’enfoncianent, désordonnés… he has introduced the text of the title at the bottom of the work, echoing the medieval convention of weaving mottoes or explanatory phrases into the composition. Marois’s letter forms are clearly of the 20th century, and the image of whales in the water appears to be almost illuminated from within, like the product of some electronic scanning device. To achieve this, he makes certain the threads of his multiple-stranded wefts are stacked from light to dark, so that every woven “mark” is made up of flickering colour. It is not the realistic outlines of the animals’ forms, but rather the energy of their reality that is depicted - translated through the intensity of Marois’s weaving technique.
Marna Goldstein Brauner is also well aware of the history of textiles in human culture. Her interest centres on cloth as ritual object: Torah covers, voodoo banners, shrouds, even tablecloths. Like a second skin, such textiles stand in for the self in a stylized way and, sometimes, carry markings of special knowledge. Entire pieces of fabric appear as subjects in Brauner’s work; they also yield aspects of themselves such as a repeated pattern or a single motif. More than that, the careful dyeing, printing, piecing, mending, embroidery and beading make the work itself a type of ritual site.
Photographs provide Brauner with a means to gather the world she has experienced into her work. “Art is a subtractive process,” she says. “It’s all out there.” The photographic images she collects on her travels - bits if statuary, old texts, museum artifacts, the food she ate for dinner - become her vocabulary. The same image may recur in different contexts, perhaps appearing once as a single object and the next time as a multiple. She prefers using real forms rather than abstract shapes in her work because they suggest wider associations in the minds of the viewers.
During the mid-1980s, Brauner created several installation works using photographic prints on fabric, Celastic (fabric impregnated with plastic that becomes mouldable and adhesive when activated by immersion in solvent or with heat) objects, clothing and old textiles. This mode of presenting images remains evident in her current works on fabric; in a sense, they are installations on a flat plane, which the viewer must enter imaginatively to complete the relationships. By putting all the imagery onto the cloth, however, Brauner is able to manipulate scale in unsettling ways. In Night Blind, for example, the head of the stone cherub dwarfs both the draped red-and-white checked tablecloth and the mausoleum. In Agnese, a stone panel, a human back and an artichoke all appear to be the same size.
Brauner believes the long relationship between textiles and architecture as altar cloths, tapestries and prayer rugs, has endowed cloth with a profound sense of place. She emphasizes that this composition was built on a strong central rectangle with a border, or several borders. Within this designated locale occur images of mysterious connection. In Dubious Eggs, for instance, male and female Coptic heads eye each other as they float in their respective frames on a sea of green crabs and red beads. (It is of peripheral interest to know that this piece was made in celebration of the artistâ€™s marriage, and that she and her husband had eaten crabs in New Orleans.) What is made clear, by means of the paired heads and the richly worked surface, is that a special relationship is being celebrated. By working over the cloth again and again, Brauner asserts the fabrication of the image - its essential existence as a wrought object.
Brauner is drawn to the sense of mystery and arcane ritual that clings to the margins of modern life. Her work is an inquiry into what sustains that power and, at the same time, endeavours to grasp it. Her use of images forms the historical past; their modification by a modern technology into shapes of colour on cloth, and their subsequent alteration by cutting, painting, stitching and beading, epitomize our 20th-century condition - possessing apparent access to all human experience, we must still enact our own mythologies.
Nancy Edell, a painter and printmaker, has been making hooked rugs alongside her other work for eight years and frequently exhibits them together. She presents highly charged but puzzling scenes in which characters - female, male, animal, and curious hybrids - encounter one another in complex ways, sometimes menacing, sometimes amusing. The tensions of sexual politics are apparent. The women in her earlier rugs (usually nude) lie passively on a bed or on a sofa while a male figure wearing an animal mask or costume approaches. In Waiting, a female dressed as a circus performer dives through a flaming hoop toward a pool below, while another sits slumped in a wicker rocking chair. The man and his dog in Assyrian Visitation (With Dream Doorknob Insert) wait on one side of a door in an empty landscape, while on the other, an Assyrian winged figure (dressed in armour and apparently carved from stone) holds a mouse by the tail in one hand and considers herself in a compact mirror held in the other.
Similar figures populate Edell’s rugs and her drawings. While the rug-hooking technique cannot match the pencil for gestural immediacy, Edell’s use of the hooked rug as a form adds a particular layer of irony to these works. As Rozsika Parker and Griselda Polluck have pointed out in Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology, “What distinguishes art from craft in the hierarchy is not so much different methods, practices and objects but also where these things are made, often in the home, and for whom they are made, often for the family. The fine arts are a public, professional activity”.6 By electing to work with this quintessentially domestic textile, Edell challenges the authority of these distinctions.
For many women, the hooked rug was a very personal form of expression in which they commemorated important aspects of their lives: marriage, their homes, favourite animals, or the birth or death of a child. Women often signed and dated their rugs. Edell goes further, appearing in some of her rugs in person. In Waiting, she appears as a red-haired woman wearing modern dress and holding a paintbrush echoes the stylized pose of the Egyptian scribe, while in Fragile Structures, she appears in two of the panels, wearing her yellow silk Chinese robe. Art Nuns was inspired by a friend’s remark that all the women artists she knew were single and did nothing but work. The central haloed figure is Edell hooking a rug.
The compositions of Edell’s rugs underscore the tensions implicit in her subject matter. The framing device of the border (often repeated as an architectural detail within the composition) casts the figures in the role of the performers, recalling the medieval “miracle plays” that dramatized Biblical tales. But at the same time, the border confines the figures’ movements, forcing them in upon one another, while their postures affirm their isolation. The illusion of depth is contradicted by the evident texture of the hooked, cloth strips.
Seen together, Edell’s rugs project a strong sense of personal narrative. Each piece reads as a single panel of an entire cycle, like the pre-Renaissance paintings that illustrated episodes in the lives of the saints. But whereas “church painting” aspired to didacticism in its role as the literature of the laity, Edell asks more questions in her work than she answers, unsettling us with her mix of stereotype and archetype, and undermining our comfortable response to recognized forms.
Marois, Brauner and Edell present us with three distinct bodies of work that share some important characteristics. As textile works expressing figurative values, they nonetheless avoid representation for its own sake; the pictorial imagery is itself part of a larger program, part of which is an examination of the source for images of the familiar in our culture - news media, historical artifacts, so-called high and low art, even food and clothing. Such concerns clearly place these works far beyond the tapestries of the past, whose central role was to celebrate wealth and power. Their multiple meanings and interpretations, layered with ironies of juxtaposition and of history, are compelling.
Inextricable from the narrative of the imagery, too, is the physical nature of the objects themselves. The interplay of image and structure, fully realized by these three artists, affirms the possibility of an expressive textile art that can refine the language of material and process while speaking of life and spirit.
- Marie Frechette. “La renovation de la tapisserie de 1960 à 1975 à travers les Biennales de Lausanne” (thesis, Paris, 1976). Quoted in Textile Art, M. Thomas, C. Mainguy, S. Pommier (Skira, Geneva, 1975) p.184.
- Mildred Constantine, Jack Lenor Larsen. The Art Fabric Mainstream (Kodansha International, Tokyo, New York, San Francisco, 1985).
- Jane Fassett Brie, Jean Stamsta. Fiber R/Revolution (Milwaukee Art Museum 1986).
- Tom Lundberg. Pictorial and Narrative Fibers (Longview Arts Council, Longview, Texas, 1987).
- Nancy Corwin. “Vivid Form: New Inventions,” in American Craft, June/July 1985, p.11.
- Rosika Parker, Griselda Polluck. Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1981), p.70.
© 2007 Textile Museum of Canada